Once upon a time, the ‘norm’ was defined, at least in the Western world, as white, male, middle-class, heterosexual and of course sane, able-bodied and of normal intelligence. The attributes of this group were the standard against which all others were measured, the yardstick ‘everyone’ should ‘naturally’ aspire to, the best that any human could be. And if you weren’t all of these, you were somehow inferior. To a large degree this wasn’t even discussed, but simply assumed. It was the ideal pattern, the superior state, and that was that. In English-speaking countries, you could add ‘Protestant, of Northern European, preferably English, ancestry’ to that list, or, as the Americans call it, a ‘WASP’.
And then the challenges started. Women got uppity, demanding the vote and a decent education and all the rest. The lower classes formed unions and agitated for change and ‘one man, one vote’. Even ‘coloured’ people, once the shackles of slavery had been removed, began to slowly organise and strive for something better for themselves. And as the twentieth century moved on, the agitation only increased. Socialists came to power in some countries, or formed Labour Parties and got into Parliament in others. Formerly subject peoples threw off their colonial masters, and began to govern themselves. Those ‘coloured’ people started calling themselves Black, or African-American, and refused to sit in the back of the bus and accept second-class citizenship anymore. Women soon followed their example, for a second round of ‘uppity’ behaviour, and in the late sixties gays and lesbians began their own revolution.
The result is that over the last thirty to forty years, there has been a change in how such groups are regarded, with a consequent change to the common idea of the human ‘norm’. Publicly ‘out’ gay figures, mothers working full-time, women and dark-skinned people in prominent and powerful positions - even President of the US - are no longer seen as unusual or something to automatically reject even the idea of. In New Zealand we have gay civil unions, and have had two female Prime Ministers, one female Governor-General and two who are of non-white ancestry. And the sky hasn’t fallen yet.
And along with all this, there have been changes for other formerly powerless groups. Patients now have the right to be consulted and to choose their health care, where once they were simply passive recipients of ‘treatment’ from the Doctor Gods On High. Mental health patients have undergone a similar empowerment. The blind, the deaf and the intellectually handicapped, once powerless and marginalised into institutions, now enjoy a much better position and quality of life. The physically handicapped have also acquired ‘rights’, to accommodations such as disabled toilets and to being seen as fully human, even if in practise they are sometimes still treated as ‘not all there’. Nonetheless, it’s seen as ‘not nice’ to refer to ‘crips’, to laugh at someone because they can’t walk properly, or to talk down to/ignore someone just because they’re in a wheelchair – any more than it’s socially acceptable in most circles to call non-whites ‘niggers’, ‘chinks’ or ‘wops’, or to tell women they can’t do a particular job just because they’re female, or to say that lower-class or Black American accents are not acceptable on mainstream television.
That’s not to say that racism, sexism, homophobia, classism or even ableism, have all been eliminated. Far from it. But my point is that the idea of what constitutes the ‘norm’ has changed. All these groups are now seen as having fully human status, as being worthy of being treated well, even if they sometimes aren’t.
We are not.
It’s still okay for people to say in our hearing that we are ‘mistakes’ that should never have been born, or ‘thieves’ that have stolen away people’s ‘real’ children, or tragedies and burdens that have destroyed our parents’ lives.
It’s still okay – even commended – for people to say in our hearing that they ‘hate’ the autism that is the very core of who we are, without regard to the psychological damage that might do us.
It’s still okay for media to portray us almost entirely in a negative, patronising or pitying light, and to report unopposed the views of those who say that murdering us is ‘understandable’ and a ‘mercy killing’.
It’s still okay to force us into ‘treatments’, therapies or ‘restraints’ that can do us real harm, while denying us the support that actually could help us.
It’s still okay to refer to us as ‘retards’, ‘losers’, ‘geeks’, ‘nerds’ or ‘ass-burgers’.
it’s still okay to exclude us, reject us, laugh and jeer at us, bully us even as adults, deny us employment, and generally dis-empower us.
It’s still okay to demand that we suppress and deny our true selves and natural behaviours such as stims, even if they aren’t hurting ourselves or anyone else.
And it’s still okay to take it as a given that our ways of being are automatically inferior to those of neurotypical ways, and any difference between us is a ‘defect’ on our part.
Most of all, it’s still okay to see us as ‘not fully human’, as somehow lesser than the ‘normal’ people, as Not Good Enough to have rights just like any other human.
Because we are not seen as fully human, and we have no rights.
I’m not wanting to minimise any group’s struggle here, but it’s nonetheless true that even the blind, deaf, intellectually and physically handicapped, and those with mental health issues, are seen as more ‘normal’ than us. Unless they are also on the spectrum, there’s a shared outlook, a body of shared assumptions and attitudes, a natural facility with all the things we so struggle with, that they all have in common.
We don’t share it.
We are the ultimate ‘other’. The furthest ‘out there’ group, the last frontier of what it means to be human. Having spent time in the feminist and anti-racism movements of the eighties, I believe our struggle will prove to be the hardest, the longest, the loneliest and the most complex of all.
None of which means we shouldn’t try – rather, it means it becomes all the more imperative, all the more needed, all the more necessary, that we do. And when we consider all the above treatments we are on the receiving end of, and the damage they are doing, all the more urgent. We have to do it. We have no choice. Because we are human, and it’s time to step forth and declare it, and take our place in the world.